General Hospital : A New Beginning or a Dead End?

Watching General Hospital these last two weeks, as the energetic efforts of One Life to Live veterans Frank Valentini and Ron Carlivati to save the show from almost certain doom begin to play out, it occurs to me that my time as a fan of this once-formidable serial has come full circle. I began watching GH in 1978, shortly after fearless executive producer Gloria Monty had been brought on board to save the show from seemingly certain cancellation. In fact, as legend has it, GH at the time had sunk so low in the ratings it was given only a few months to reverse its failing fortunes or be cancelled.

Thirty-five years later GH is once again on life support or damn close to it -- and, once again, it may very well be terminated in a few months! ABC seems to have made clear that it wants out of the soap opera business and has arranged for a new talk show starring Katie Couric to take over the GH time slot come September. It doesn't get worse than that for a show that has gone from being the strongest network-owned program on daytime television to a ratings-challenged wreck, gutted by more than a decade of inexplicably destructive writing and reckless corporate mismanagement.

Monty had nothing to lose, and she ran with it, wisely and unapologetically changing everything about a show that simply wasn't working -- and succeeding beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. GH is in largely the same situation right now, so one might think that Valentini, as executive producer, and Carlivati, as head writer, would take a Monty-like approach to the task at hand and change everything about a show that simply wasn't working and is on its death march anyway. (The only chance it has of veering off that trail is if ABC puts its perfectly awful new infotainment effort The Revolution out of its misery.)

I realize we're into only the second week of the Valentini/Carlivati period, but it's beginning to look like nothing much is going to change on GH, and without changes and corresponding ratings increases the show's future will remain dire at best. On the plus side, the dynamic duo (whose work on the much-missed One Life to Live I admired most of the time) has accelerated the show's storytelling, pumped it full of tantalizing cliffhangers and given everyone in the cast scenes in which to shine (in particular Jane Elliot, Jason Thompson, Nancy Lee Grahn and John J. York). They have also brought three much-missed veteran characters back for brief story turns: Finola Hughes as Anna Devane, Tristan Rogers as Robert Scorpio and a seemingly ageless Emma Samms as Holly Sutton. (Rick Springfield, as Noah Drake, and Robin Mattson, as Heather Webber, are reportedly on their way.)

It's the minus side that has me concerned. The GH narrative has been hyper-active since Valentini and Carlivati took over, but the big upheavals they have introduced into the story still have tiresome mobsters Sonny Corinthos (Maurice Benard) and Jason Morgan (Steve Burton) at their center. For example, beloved Dr. Robin Scorpio (Kimberly McCullough) died in a highly improbable lab explosion (a laughably bad series of silly sequences) because she simply had to put her life in danger (and potentially ruin the lives of her husband, daughter and parents) to retrieve a concoction she created to cure Jason's terminal brain swelling before the room blew up. Meanwhile, several characters were plunged into their own dramas and traumas because Sonny once again lost his shit at a party. Then Sonny got shot for the umpteenth time, initiating a mystery about which nobody could possibly care. (Who shot him? Who cares? Been there, seen that, over it.) And then Sonny sent rival crime boss Anthony Zacchara (Bruce Weitz) scurrying for his life, which resulted in Zacchara crashing his car into one occupied by three characters that had breezed in from One Life to Live: Starr Manning (Kristen Alderson), her beleaguered boyfriend Cole Thornhart (Van Hughes) and their little girl, Hope. Starr survived, but Cole and Hope went over a cliff, seemingly meeting their violent, fiery deaths on the rocks below. Of course, characters are rarely truly dead on soap operas, so it is possible that Cole and Hope survived. (For that matter, that may not have been Robin Scorpio's body in the burned out lab.) But for now we're meant to believe these people are dead, and who wants to believe that? GH just killed a child (little Jake) a few months ago (in a storyline that really soiled the bed). Who told ABC that child killing is a thing the soap opera audience craves?

So that's one doctor, one reformed bad boy and one little girl killed off within the first two weeks of the new regime. I'm particularly dismayed by the way Robin was disposed of -- in a meaningless accident that came about partly because she wanted to save the life of a murderer. I remember watching the day Robin first appeared on the canvas as the surprise daughter of super-agent Robert Scorpio. She was seven years old at the time. I was still watching ten years later when Robin contracted HIV from her first sexual encounter with her first boyfriend, Stone Cates. She wasn't the first television character to become HIV-positive in the mid-nineties, but she was the first to illustrate that HIV isn't a death sentence and that with proper care and medical treatment a person with HIV can lead a long, happy and productive life. There is no understating how impactful this storyline was when it began seventeen years ago. The character and her story were too important to too many people for too long to be brought to so pointless and poorly produced an end, even if her death is a grand way to galvanize so many characters.

I'd like to see the new regime make moves as bold as those Monty made way back in the seventies since, again, there is nothing to lose. They could begin by finding a way to bring Alan Quartermaine (Stuart Damon) back onto the canvas. It wouldn't hurt if his son A.J. came along, too. GH has sucked gas (and continuously lost viewers) ever since it gutted the Q family.

The best suggestion here would be to eliminate the characters whose storylines have brought the show to its knees. Specifically, I'm talking about Sonny, Jason and mobster-hopping bitch-on-wheels Carly Jacks (Laura Wright). Carly might be interesting if Nurse Bobbie Spencer (Jacklyn Zeman) came back to town and held her daughter accountable for her atrocious behavior over the years, and I could deal with Jason if his brain problems of late resulted in the return of the mild-mannered Jason from the good old days. (How would that Jason deal with the memories of all the lives he took during the last 15 years?) But Sonny has got to go, preferably in a violent manner that would stir up every character on the canvas and send them reeling. Imagine the stories that could be told! I'd also like to see the miserable wretch that was once Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) go away and stay away. The utter destruction of this once uniquely captivating character has been terrible to watch. He's beyond repair, and it's best to simply send him on his way. Let him go visit Laura and explain his thoughts about drinking, drunk driving and having sex with Holly during their marriage.

On a final note -- for now, anyway -- I think it's time to bring the Cassadine story to a close. Mad granny Helena isn't nearly as interesting as she used to be. Sadly, she's devolved into a ridiculous cartoon character. I blame everyone who has written the character in recent years, rather than Constance Towers, the wonderful actress who portrays her. Helena's recent scenes with Luke, Ethan (Nathan Parsons), Holly and the Woman in White (who was improbably revealed to be Helena's own daughter) were so poorly written and directed they were difficult to watch. She has done so many terrible things to so many people there is simply no reason for Luke not to kill the nasty old bat. Her storyline began thirty years ago. It's time to move on.

Then again, if soap opera writers weren't so afraid to move on, the genre wouldn't be breathing its last, would it?

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